On the 8th of November, the American general elections will end a two-year campaign marathon rife with scandals, surprises and slander.
At The Web Psychologist we are intensely curious about influence and persuasion on- and offline… And this presidential election has turned out to be a particularly interesting, memorable and disturbing case study.
So, with the results due out this week, we’d like to shine a spotlight on one particular rhetorical move that’s been used in this campaign – the Granfalloon technique – and explore the psychological dynamics that make it so effective.
Persuasion and politics
The term “Granfalloon” was coined by the author Kurt Vonnegut in 1963 to refer to “a proud and meaningless association of human beings”, a group of people who feel they share a common identity even though they are only trivially associated with each other. Strangers who bond over their shared hometown, zodiac sign or favourite red wine would be considered part of such a Granfalloon.
In his experiments, British social psychologist Henri Tajfel discovered that such Granfalloons form even when their members are aware that the selection criteria are not meaningful. When participants were grouped at random with the toss of the coin, this did not keep them from liking one another more than the members of the other group.
As Tajfel observed, at any point in time, most individuals have not met most other individuals on this planet (that would obviously be impossible), and so we each know very little about most other people.
At the same time, the groups to which we belong also define our identity. They help to explain who we are, both to ourselves and others. It stands to reason then, that if we are to think well of ourselves, we are also likely to view the groups with which we identify in a favourable light.
When we interact with someone new, if we’re lacking information as to who they are, it can feel tempting and intuitive to use their group membership as a shortcut to guide our behaviours towards them. This biased, initial approach is thus based on whether the stranger is part of a group to which we belong, versus a cohort that may be in conflict with our own.
The word ‘group’ is a very malleable one in this instance – what is perceived as the ingroup and the outgroup depends on what we focus our attention on.
- Do you focus on the gender, religion, nation, profession or race that might distinguish both of you?
- Do you focus on the tastes, life choices and preferences that you may have in common?
This initial guess of who the other might be, and how you should approach them, begins a cycle of behaviour that can initiate a vicious or virtuous cycle, long before two groups engage in real conflict with each other.
Discriminatory actions trigger negative reactions.
Negative interactions give rise to negative attitudes, which then guide future behaviours.
How groups shape our identities
The Granfalloon technique exploits the human tendency to act in favour of groups with which we identify. It refers to a shared identity that influences the individual to act in line with group norms, beliefs and interests.
Those most affected by this dynamic tend not only to prefer members of their own group to members of other groups, they are also more likely to be influenced by ingroup norms, and to view members of the outgroup as more homogenous than those of their own.
This last effect comes about because members of the outgroup are perceived in contrast to members of the ingroup. In such a comparison, the difference between groups becomes the most salient feature, overshadowing more nuanced personal differences. When comparing members of the ingroup however, such fine-tuned personal differences receive greater attention.
The Granfalloon technique is a rhetorical ploy that is common not only in political campaigning, but also in the advertising world and even in everyday arguments.
In fact, when Trump announced his presidential bid in June 2015, he used the Granfalloon technique in seven out of eight sentences:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Washington Post quoting Donald Trump announcing his presidential bid in June 2015
He identified a clear outgroup (Mexico) at odds with the ingroup. The ingroup remained heterogenous (as demonstrated when he pointed at several individuals), while he depicted the outgroup as homogenous.
Mexico was referred to as one agent capable of intentional actions (“Mexico sends its people”), and the outgroup was described negatively with words that evoke disgust and revulsion towards their perceived otherness (drugs, crime, rapists).
The only sentence formulated as an opinion (“I assume”), rather than a fact, was the one limiting the derogation of the other, in which he acknowledged that the seemingly heterogenous out-group does include decent individuals.
How do we deal with it?
We think that starting vicious cycles is generally a bad idea, and so our advice for dealing with Granfalloons is this:
When you encounter a Granfalloon scenario in action, observe it from a distance and research the facts behind what’s being said.
Ask yourself what intent the speaker has in referring to a specific ingroup:
- Is the ingroup relevant to you?
- Does any real conflict exist between the groups?
- What commonalities exist between the groups that are not mentioned?
- How heterogeneous are the members of the outgroup when you examine them further?
- Can you find inspiration and merit in the way the outgroup differs from yourself?
- Have you had the chance to meet a member of the outgroup in person and get to know them in all of their nuances?
We wish you a happy election and hope you stay safe in the deep woods of rhetorics!
Michael Simmons explains why intergroup relations foster innovation and success in this article – a highly recommended 8 minute read.
If you want to know how you can apply these insights to online marketing, check out this article by Alex Birkett.
You can find Tajfel’s original science on the social psychology of intergroup relations here (paywall).